I wrote a few months ago about the underwhelming to disappointing summer the Boston Bruins were having, just a few years after winning the Stanley Cup, and just one year after adding perennial 30 goal scorer Jarome Iginla to a roster that was 17 seconds away from forcing a Game 7 against the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Finals. That was before the B’s traded Johnny Boychuk for nothing that could help them this season, and that was before the injuries and excuses began. This Bruins team is bad. It’s the worst I’ve felt as a fan about the team since the 2009-10 season, but even then, a young Tuukka Rask had given us a reason for hope. This team isn’t tough, can’t score, and has deficiencies on defense that make the goaltending look bad. How did it happen this way to a team that won the second President’s Trophy in franchise history last spring? What has to happen for things to get better?
The highlight for the Bruins in the summer of 2013 was the acquisition of Jarome Iginla in free agency, after the B’s had failed to complete a trade with the Calgary Flames during the season. Iginla instead was dealt to the Pittsburgh Penguins, whom the Bruins swept on their way to their second Stanley Cup Finals appearance in three years. Unfortunately, Iggy’s stay in Boston ended with a second round playoff exit at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens (who lost in the Eastern Conference Finals to the New York Rangers, who lost in the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup Finals, meaning the B’s didn’t even come close to being beaten by the best team in the tournament). Once again a free agent, Iginla took his talents to Denver to join the Colorado Avalanche in the summer of 2014.
Players come and go. That’s the nature of professional sports, but Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli did not bring in anyone to replace Iginla. Iggy was brought in to replace the production on the top line that Nathan Horton had contributed from 2010 to 2013 (Iginla was more productive than Horton in the regular season, but lacked Horty’s playoff scoring touch that defined his tenure in Boston), and without a player of that caliber drawing coverage and creating space, the production of Milan Lucic and David Krejci has also suffered this season.The Bruins offense is the worst it has been since 2009-10, the year before they traded for Horton (as well as Gregory Campbell, when the Bruins traded Dennis Wideman to Florida), when 4th liner Daniel Paille had to play significant minutes on the top line alongside Krejci and Lucic. The team has restrictions with the salary cap, but they have been doing a lot more subtraction than addition to this once great roster in recent years, and not just with the 1st line right wing position.
The Bruins lost some major pieces of their identity be choosing to move on from defenseman Andrew Ference (now living in hockey hell as captain of the lowly Edmonton Oilers) in 2013 and enforcer Shawn Thornton (now with the Florida Panthers) in 2014. The Bruins team that won the Stanley Cup in 2011 was not the fastest, not the most prolific offense, and not the most talented team in the NHL by any stretch of the imagination. They won with grit, hard work, physicality, and otherworldly performance in net after otherworldly performance in net by Tim Thomas. Guys like Ference and Thornton were quintessential Bruins in that regard. They were the glue guys in the dressing room who brought a physical edge on the ice. Ference was the guy who started the “Starter Jacket” tradition during the 2011 playoffs, awarding a vintage Bruins jacket he found in a thrift shop to the player of the game (and eventually giving it to the retiring Mark Recchi in the banner raising ceremony), and continuing similar rituals during other playoff runs. Thornton added a certain energy to the game, even if he wasn’t dropping the gloves, and adding Thorty to the lineup against the Vancouver Canucks allowed for the Bruins to play with an edge they did not have when he was in the press box.
At least when they let Ference walk in free agency, there was confidence that young defensemen Torey Krug and Dougie Hamilton could step up and take on more responsibility on the blue line, but with the departure of Thornton this summer, it was a shift in philosophy as much as a change in personnel, and it has not worked thus far. The Bruins reacted their playoff loss to Montreal by thinking they needed to get faster and more skilled to be able to go toe to toe with Montreal in the future. That may not be wrong. The Habs had a player (who has since retired) very similar to Thornton in the form of Princeton grad George Parros. Parros is another old school tough guy, and has a mustache that never got the memo that the 70s ended, and was teammates with Thornton on the Stanley Cup winning 2007 Anaheim Ducks, but the biggest difference between the two players was that Thornton was playing significant minutes for the Bruins, while Parros sat in the press box during the playoffs for the Canadiens. The Bruins called up from Providence an enforcer named Bobby Robbins, a UMass Lowell grad who had never played in the NHL before this season, but had a little bit of Hanson Brother in his game and brought energy and toughness to every shift. He was sent back down shortly thereafter, and the Bruins are left with a little bit of skill, and not enough toughness on their roster. They did not necessarily need Shawn Thornton, but they do need a tough guy.
I was wrong about the Seguin Trade. I’ve admitted it, and I would be more insistent that the Bruins admitted it if it would change the fact that the trade happened and that Tyler Seguin is never coming back (at least not in his prime). I wrote in the summer of 2013 (on the day the trade happened if I remember correctly) that Seguin was a disappointment, and that Loui Eriksson was a better fit for the Bruins, and he has been nothing to write home about until very recently. Reilly Smith has exceeded my expectations, but that was only because I didn’t know who he was before the Bruins acquired him from Dallas. At any rate, the Bruins gave up on Tyler Seguin too early, and Seguin might score 50 goals for the Dallas Stars this year. It could be argued that Taylor Hall would have been a better fit for the Bruins, but he was off the board when they drafter at #2 in 2010. With talent like that, the Bruins should have been more patient, and should have allowed him to flourish in the offensive zone rather than harp on his defensive shortcomings. Seguin is still only 22, and has found a home in Dallas. Meanwhile the Bruins are struggling to score just as badly as the year before they drafted him.
Peter Chiarelli was enough in Boston’s defensive depth at the beginning of the season to trade Johnny Boychuk to the New York Islanders during the preseason. Boychuk, like Ference and Thornton, was a big part of the Bruins’ physical identity during both Cup runs, and had only gotten better since his first significant ice time during the 2009-10 season. After Dennis Seidenberg went down with a knee injury last season, Boychuk stepped up and established himself as the team’s second best defenseman after captain Zdeno Chara. In return, the Bruins got two second round picks, and a conditional third rounder, which felt like a bad return on a good player who is only 30. The trade looked even worse as Chara, Adam McQuaid, and Torey Krug have all missed significant time with injuries this season while Boychuk is making a great impact for the suddenly competitive Isles.
The Bruins have mismanaged the roster when it comes to the salary cap. I understand wanting to keep a good team together, but the Bruins overpaid players they should not have, and the salary cap has not gone up the way Chiarelli may have thought it would. The Bruins owe Chris Kelly $3 million this season and next season. They owe Loui Eriksson $4.25 million this season and next season. They owe Milan Lucic $6 million this season and next season, and his price is likely to go up if he becomes an unrestricted free agent as scheduled. The Bruins will also have to pay more for impending young free agents Reilly Smith, Matt Fraser, Craig Cunningham, Torey Krug, Dougie Hamilton (all restricted), Matt Bartkowski, and Carl Soderberg (unrestricted) after this season, not to mention veterans Gregory Campbell and Daniel Paille, whom the Bruins seem more and more unlikely to bring back, given the circumstances. That’s a lot of uncertainty, and a lot of variables keeping the Bruins where they are. A trade or two needs to be made to make the picture clearer.
If it were up to me (which is it not), almost everyone on the roster would be on the table for trade talks. The only players I would not trade under any circumstances at this point are Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, and Dougie Hamilton: the Norris Trophy winning captain, Selke Trophy winning alternate captain, and the promising young defenseman. The Bruins sold too low on Seguin, and after the Boychuk trade, my lack of faith in their ability to get a proper return on Hamilton has only been reaffirmed. David Krejci should not be traded under any circumstances, for all intents and purposes, but I left him off the list because of the long shot possibility of packaging him up to get a Jeff Carter, or an Anze Kopitar, or a Jonathan Toews, or a Ryan Getzlaf, but that will never happen. I love Tuukka Rask, but the Bruins drafted goalie prospect Malcolm Subban (P.K.’s brother), and the years the Bruins would spend developing him into a franchise goaltender are years that Tuukka is under contract. Going forward, they will only be able to keep Rask or Subban long term, so both should be on the trade block now. Loui Eriksson and Chris Kelly are two players I would trade (for the right return, obviously) without feeling bad about it, and while I like them, Brad Marchand, Milan Lucic, Dennis Seidenberg, Gregory Campbell, Daniel Paille, Reilly Smith, Carl Soderberg, and Torey Krug are all players they could move and teams would be willing to give up substantial assets to acquire if the Bruins become sellers at the trade deadline.
I would be more confident in the Bruins’ ability to build through the draft and the farm system if Chiarelli was any good at drafting. Much like Theo Epstein with the Red Sox, much of his championship roster was put together by his predecessor, with key acquisitions like Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, and Tim Thomas being made my former GM Mike O’Connell (now the Director of Pro Development for the LA Kings), and the trade to acquire Rask on Draft Day from Toronto happening while Chiarelli was still under contract with the Ottawa Senators (was it Chiarelli? was it O’Connell’s people? was it Harry Sinden? My guess is Harry, but that’s another column for another day). Chiarelli’s greatest drafting successes came early in his tenure when he selected Phil Kessel (#5), Milan Lucic (#50), and Brad Marchand (#71) in 2006 (in 2009, Kessel was traded to the Maple Leafs for the draft picks that became Tyler Seguin, Jared Knight, and Dougie Hamilton), but he’s gone cold since then. His best recent draft selections were Seguin (#2, 2010) and Hamilton (#9, 2011), but that was because those were picks acquired from the Toronto Maple Leafs so high it would be really hard to miss, and even then, they dealt one of those players after three seasons.
Other Bruins drafts were highlighted by Subban (#24, 2012), a goalie drafted by a team that didn’t need a goalie, Jordan Caron (#25, 2009), Jared Knight (#32, 2010) and Ryan Spooner (#45, 2010), who have not been able to establish themselves at the NHL level, and Zach Hamill (#8, 2007) who was drafted ahead of Logan Couture, Brandon Sutter, Ryan McDonagh, Lars Eller, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Max Paccioretty, all of whom have become productive NHL players while Hamill washed out of the Bruins’ organization, was traded to Washington for Chris Bourque (Ray’s kid), and now plays professional hockey for the hockey club HPK in Finland. There is still hope for 18 year old Czech prospect David Pastrnak (#25, 2014), but he will not be able to help the Bruins turn their fortunes around this season.
Normally, it would be natural to blame the coach for a roster with a history of success to not be as motivated as they used to be, but it’s hard to blame Claude Julien for this. I’ve been critical of Julien before, and I think his system has its flaws, but you can’t put this season all on him. Claude didn’t trade Johnny Boychuk. Claude didn’t let Shawn Thornton take his talents to South Beach. Claude didn’t let Jarome Iginla leave and try to replace his production with minor league talent. Claude may have been frustrated with Seguin’s inconsistency on offense and liability on defense, but he wasn’t the one who thought Loui Eriksson, Reilly Smith, Matt Fraser, and Joe Morrow were a satisfactory return for a 21 year old sniper, either. Claude Julien may be on the hot seat in my mind someday, but it will not be this day. The B’s have bigger problems than the coach.
Right now, the Bruins are a mess, and Chiarelli, Julien, and Team President Cam Neely have their work cut out for them. Trades need to be made, and draft picks are not a good enough return. Players who can put the puck in the net should get a higher priority than they have been getting. If they can put more skill around the solid foundation of Chara, Bergeron, Hamilton, and Krejci, good things will happen, and Julien’s system is such that with good defensemen, either Rask or Subban can thrive. They might be able to turn it around this year, but I’m not holding my breath.
Every great team has to move on from the past. Tom Brady and Vince Wilfork are the only players that remain from the last Patriots team to win the Super Bowl. The Celtics just traded away the last remaining player from their championship contending days from 2008 to 2012, and are looking ahead to the future. David Ortiz is the last player remaining from the 2004 Red Sox, and they have been moving on from players from the 2007 and 2013 World Series squads left and right. Peter Chiarelli can fix this. He was captain of the hockey team at some school called Harvard, and is highly though of enough from his peers to be named to the front office of Team Canada in the 2014 Winter Olympics, and now he has to use his Ivy League intelligence and hockey IQ to fix the Bruins team he built into a champion once already. The questions that remain are “when?” and “how?”
Last summer was a lot more exciting for Bruins fans than this one. Last year, the B’s had come 17 seconds away from a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Final, but fell short against the Chicago Blackhawks. In July of 2013, the traded away former #2 overall draft pick Tyler Seguin along with Rich Peverley to the Dallas Stars for a package of talent that included Loui Eriksson, Reilly Smith, and Matt Fraser, and signed veteran free agent goal scorer and future inductee into the Hockey Hall of Fame Jarome Iginla. While the decision to move on from Seguin so early into his career, and just before the six year contract extension the Bruins had given him in 2012 was about to kick in, could be second guessed and criticized, it was a bold move by a contending team to retool and improve on the fly. The Bruins got guys that were better fits for their system than Seguin, and for a time, it worked.
The B’s were the NHL’s best team in the regular season, earning their first President’s Trophy since 1990, but they ran into a difficult opponent in their hated rival Montreal Canadiens. A second round exit from the playoffs was disappointing for sure, but what happened this summer, unlike the last, gives us very little, if anything, to be excited about.
Last year, the Bruins were adding Jarome Iginla to a team that played in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final. This year, with Iginla signing with the Colorado Avalanche, the B’s are subtracting a perennial 30 goal scorer from a roster that had trouble scoring in the playoffs, and have brought no one in to replace his production. It’s finally caught up to them. Peter Chiarelli gave out contract extensions like candy around the time the B’s won the Cup in 2011, but with the hard salary cap that Jeremy Jacobs spent two lockouts fighting for and restricting, they now lack the flexibility to bring in impact free agents without trading away key members of the roster. It’s a tough position to be in, and it really looks like the general managers approach to building the team does not match well with the beliefs of his influential owner, who would rather see an entire season get cancelled than see the NHLPA win in the labor negotiations.
As for Iginla, I’m really sad that he didn’t get to win the Stanley Cup with the Bruins. When I was a kid, the Bruins’ best player was Raymond Bourque, and he played for the B’s for over 20 years, but never won the Cup with Boston. When I was in 4th grade, the Bruins traded him to Colorado so that he would have a chance to win it all before retiring, and a year and a half later, he did. Bourque had one of the great endings to a career in the history of professional sports, and I really wanted to see Iggy get that in Boston after years being the face of the franchise for the Calgary Flames, but alas, it seem that if Iggy wants a Bourque ending to his illustrious career, it will be in Denver just like it was for Ray. As a Bruins fan, I’ve always liked the Avs because of what they did for Bourque, so it won’t be hard to wish Iginla and the Avs well in the West next season.
With the departures of Iginla and Shawn Thornton, the Bruins will have to fill the holes with young talent. Chiarelli and his hockey operations team have not been particularly good at drafting in recent years, and many of the young prospects haven’t panned out, but people haven’t noticed because the earlier batch of players to come through the system were competing for the Stanley Cup. Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci were drafted by the Bruins before Chiarelli was general manager, and while he had been hired by the Bruins, Chiarelli was still working as an assistant GM for the Ottawa Senators on the day of the Draft in 2006 when the B’s traded Andrew Raycroft to the Toronto Maple Leafs for a Finnish goalie draft selection named Tuukka Rask, so it’s unclear how much credit he can take for that one. The best draft selections in the Chiarelli Era were on picks they got from Toronto in the Phil Kessel trade, where they were so high up he couldn’t miss, in Tyler Seguin (#2, 2010) and Dougie Hamilton (#9, 2011), and even Seguin got traded three years later because they were sick of him. The jury is still out on former 1st round pick Malcolm Subban (#24, 2012) because goalies take longer to develop and the Bruins already have a young Vezina Trophy and Bronze Medal winning goaltender under contract for years to come. This is the year for Jordan Caron to step it up if he’s going to make it in the NHL. Drafted in 2009, Caron has numerous chances to establish himself with the Bruins, but has never shown more than the occasional flash of skill. This year is an important one for Matt Bartkowski, Ryan Spooner, Justin Florek, and Matt Fraser as well. A lot of veterans from the Stanley Cup team aren’t in Boston anymore and now is their time to shine.
If there’s one thing to get excited about for the Bruins it’s newly drafted forward David Pastrnak. The Czech-born 18 year old was taken by the B’s with the 25th pick in this year’s draft, and has a chance to make the team this fall. I always get worried about rushing young players along too quickly. The ones with high expectations like Joe Thornton (#1, 1997), while obviously talented, tend to get rushed into a major role too early. Jumbo Joe probably never should have been the captain of the Boston Bruins, or a least not at that time, and his teams never made it past the 1st round of the playoffs. He’s a great player, and he will be in the Hockey Hall of Fame someday, but he’s continued his history of postseason underachievement as the captain of the San Jose Sharks. On the other hand, Patrice Bergeron (#45, 2003) was a second round pick who didn’t come in with a whole lot of hype or fanfare, but made the Boston Bruins’ roster as an 18 year old rookie because of his work ethic and for doing all the little things right. Bergeron wasn’t rushed. He was ready at that age, and he’s the kind of guy every team in the NHL would love to build their team around. Pastrnak could be really good, and he could have an impact on the Bruins this season, but I’m not ready to say that he’s the answer or that he can replace Jarome Iginla’s production.
The Bruins are sending mixed messages again. The hockey decisions make it look like a transition year, but the raise in ticket prices (my friend’s season tickets were $40 per seat, per game in 2013-14, but they’re up to $50 in 2014-15) make it seem like they’re supposed to be that much better this year. Ownership is getting greedy, and it’s making the hockey people look bad. Having a bridge year is one thing, and raising ticket prices is another, but doing both at the same time is the kind of thing that turned fans off of the Bruins for a long time. Jeremy Jacobs is all about the bottom line. That’s why the NHL has a salary cap, and that’s why Ray Bourque and Cam Neely didn’t get their names on the Stanley Cup in Boston as players. It’s moments like this that make it tough to be a Bruins fan. We had a good run from 2008 to 2014, but this is the first time in a while that I’ve been more excited in the middle of the summer about the Patriots than I am about the Bruins. That being said, I know I’m going to get reeled back in as soon as the puck drops for the first time this fall. Jeremy Jacobs knows this, and that’s how he can get away with doing what he’s been doing to Bruins fans since 1975. Excellent.
Well, that was disappointing. I had to take a breather from the Internet for a couple days following my Boston Bruins’ 3-1 defeat in Game 7 at the hands of the hated Montreal Canadiens. It was a great season, but it was a horrible way for it to end. The Bruins got beaten by a team they underestimated, and squandered a great chance to raise the Stanley Cup once again. It wasn’t Pittsburgh waiting for them in the Conference Finals, it was a very ordinary New York Rangers. After that, I’d take my chances with any of the teams left in the West. Instead Montreal if the team moving on, and there is no worse feeling as a hockey fan.
The Canadiens were just better in this series. Their best players were their best players against the Bruins. Carey Price. P.K. Subban. Max Paccioretty. Thomas Vanek. The best contributions for the Bruins came from the likes of Loui Eriksson, Carl Soderberg, and Matt “FroYo” Fraser, not Zdeno Chara, Tuukka Rask, or David Krejci. It’s not all Krejci’s fault, but the fact that he went without a goal in the playoffs when he’s normally their best playoff scorer is troubling. Brad Marchand is another one who deserves a lot of blame. He, like Krejci, did not score in the playoffs. He’s an agitator. A big part of his job is to get under the skin of the other team and draw penalties, but against a team like Montreal, who isn’t phased by Marchy’s antics because they are a team of rats and weasels, he’s useless if he’s not scoring, especially in a stingily goaltended series where pucks in the back are worth their weight in gold.
Marchand and Krejci aren’t the only ones to blame, though. Peter Chiarelli played it safe at the trade deadline, adding Corey Potter and Andrej Meszaros for depth on defense, but not adding any forward depth, when they could have added Thomas Vanek. Instead, the New York Islanders dealt Vanek, who has had success against Boston his whole career, to Montreal, as the Habs were loading up for a run-in with the Bruins this spring. Chiarelli was looking long-term when they had a short-term chance they should have capitalized on. Zdeno Chara isn’t getting any younger, much the way the Patriots only have a couple more chances to win the Super Bowl with Tom Brady. The Game 7 defeat this week felt the the type of game the Patriots lose in the playoffs, too. They were in it, but they weren’t scoring, and a player they could have or should have had (Vanek in the Bruins’ case, Wes Welker in the Patriots’ case) is contributing for the other team like every fan feared going in.
What’s really frustrating is that the Habs are not that much better than the Bruins, and looked very beatable in their 7-2 Game 1 home loss against New York on Saturday. The Rangers are a team the Bruins match up much better against, but hopefully they can roll over the Habs in the Eastern Conference Finals. Price looked like Ken Dryden against the Bruins, but looked more like Marc-Andre Fleury against the Rangers. That’s hockey, I guess, and it’s another summer where Bruins fans have to sit there wondering what might have been.
It took until overtime, but the Boston Bruins finally managed to pepper the net enough for a puck to break through the brick wall that is Carey Price. The B’s and the Montreal Canadiens traded scoring chance after scoring chance, but Price and Tuukka Rask were both playing like goalies from another planet. This second round series is now tied 2-2, with the teams heading back to TD Garden for Game 5 on Saturday. The Bruins needed this game, and an unlikely hero delivered for them. In a series where historical playoff hero David Krejci has struggled mightily, the Bruins needed to get scoring from non-traditional sources, and once again Peter Chiarelli looks like a genius for trading away a star player at the right time.
Matt Fraser, who was traded to Boston from the Dallas Stars last summer as part of the Tyler Seguin Trade (along with Loui Eriksson, Reilly Smith, and Joe Morrow) was called up from the AHL affiliate Providence Bruins earlier in the day, to replace Justin Florek on the roster and replace Jordan Caron in the lineup. The 23 year old Red Deer, Alberta native was tasked with playing his first Stanley Cup Playoff game in hostile territory as part of hockey’s most storied rivalry, and if the moment was getting to him, you didn’t know until he started rambling about frozen yogurt to Pierre McGuire after the game (Seriously, the frozen yogurt thing was out of left field. It’s like he was trying to get quoted in Joe Haggerty’s game recap or something). Claude Julien put Fraser on the 3rd line alongside Eriksson and Carl Soderberg, and that line was a force for the entire game.
It was early in overtime when Fraser poked in Price’s rebound of Soderberg’s shot, but the game was tense all the way through. Once again the Bruins got a playoff goal from a guy who didn’t make the team picture, but Fraser is knowing he has a knack for this kind of thing. This spring, he has become the first player to score overtime goals in both the AHL and NHL playoffs in the same year. He was called up from Providence because Boston needed someone who could finish on a very hot, very talented goalie, and he did just that. It was such shrewd “personnel management” that it managed to catch the attention of Bill Belichick on the first day of the NFL Draft.
Besides Matt Fraser fellow third-liners Eriksson and Soderberg, the hero of the game was goalie Tuukka Rask. Up until that point in the series, Tuukka hadn’t played poorly, but he wasn’t stealing games for the Bruins either. Fairly or unfairly, Rask will always be compared to Tim Thomas, and many new Bruins fans see the way Thomas stood on his head and took a Bruins team that was less talented and less deep than this current roster to the Stanley Cup as the benchmark for goaltending in Boston. To some, anything less than what Thomas did is a failure in net. Rask doesn’t make as many highlight reel saves as Thomas, but that’s because he’s a more fundamentally sound goaltender, and does not get caught out of position as much. Last night, Tuukka matched the level that Price had been playing at for Montreal, and the B’s came away with a win in the Bell Centre. They needed this game, and they needed a big boy performance from Tuukka because Price wasn’t letting anything in, and that’s what they got.
Neither team was giving an inch in this game, and that’s been the story of the series through four games. Nothing will be handed to you, so it’s important not to make mistakes. These are two evenly matched teams that hate each other’s guts more than any two teams in the NHL. It’s a best of three series going forward, and both team have proven they can win on hostile ice. It’s far from over, and there’s plenty of stress, frustration, and anguish to be had on both sides of the border in the next week, but I’m sure fans in Boston and Montreal wouldn’t want it any other way.